Now, the woman Reed sang about — and whose raw talent pop artist Andy Warhol commandeered for two of his famous underground films — is gone. Holly Woodlawn died Sunday at 69. The cause was cancer and cirrhosis, as Penny Arcade, a fellow Warhol superstar who raised funds for Woodlawn in her final days, told The Washington Post in a telephone interview.
“There was no role model for a Holly Woodlawn,” Arcade said. “We’re talking about a time where the reward was freedom in itself. For Holly, whatever sacrifices she made in terms of acceptance of her family and society could never compete with the sense of freedom that Holly needed – the freedom to be herself.”
Woodlawn was born Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl in 1946 in Puerto Rico. She was not repressed.
“I was raised in Puerto Rico for the first few years of my life, where the culture is more Caribbean,” Woodlawn told the Guardian in 2007. “Everyone’s naked, it’s hotter, you come out earlier. I was having sex when I was seven and eight in the bushes with my uncles and cousins — of course, they were only 11 or 12 themselves. I was raised in a house full of women and my uncle was gay.”
Still, Woodlawn didn’t really recognize the he she started out as.
“I don’t even know who he was,” she said. “When I was younger, I was extremely shy and living in what’s now Miami Beach. My father had a nice job. I guess we were middle income. I had good schools. I just was unhappy because I didn’t know who I was.”
As Reed so memorably wrote, Woodlawn left home at 15 and headed for New York. As a performer with the Play-House of the Ridiculous — what fellow performer Arcade called “the original glitter glam queer political rock-and-roll theater of the 60s” — Woodlawn was soon on the periphery of Warhol’s Factory scene, a hodgepodge of artists, musicians and hustlers re-inventing American culture. And though the pecking order in that scene was ever-shifting, Woodlawn, cast in two landmark Warhol films, “Trash” (1970) and “Women in Revolt” (1971) — found herself at the center of it for a time.
These were not Hollywood productions.
“Everybody tries to make films very well nowadays,” Paul Morrissey, who directed both films, said of he and Warhol’s commitment to authenticity. “So we go in the opposite direction: We try to make them as badly as possible.”
“Trash” told the tale of heroin addict Joe (Joe Dallesandro, or “Little Joe” of “Walk on the Wild Side”) and Holly (played by Woodlawn) trying to eke out a living — by, among other schemes, faking a pregnancy to get welfare. Like much of Warhol’s filmography, “Trash” is a study in contrasts: amateurish, pioneering, ridiculous and brilliant.
“In spite of the grubbiness of the scene and the ineffectuality of the various disguises and escapes employed by Joe and Holly and the rest, there is no sense of despair,” the New York Times wrote in 1970. “At heart, the film is a kind of exuberant exhibition of total apathy.”
Joe Dallesandro, left, and Holly Woodlawn in “Trash.”
“Women in Revolt” — in which Woodlawn and two other “female impersonators,” as the New York Times put it at the time, play women struggling with female liberation — was both “the ultimate put-down of women’s lib, as well as the ultimate endorsement.”
Of Warhol’s stunt casting, Woodlawn said: “I think that basically Andy just loved glamorous women, and around that time, he just didn’t know any.”
Even the Gray Lady was a bit puzzled. Was this genius, or garbage?
“‘Women in Revolt’ is a comparatively elaborate Warhol movie with a limited intelligence, but unlike a lot of better movies, it uses almost all of the intelligence available to it,” the paper wrote. “Thus, in a crazy way, it must be called a success.”
Though the Times was of two minds about the film, “Women in Revolt,” by Arcade’s account, inspired Warhol to inspire Reed to write “Walk on the Wild Side” in the first place.
“It wasn’t Lou Reed’s idea to write,” Arcade, who also appeared in the film, told The Post of the song. “Warhol suggested it to Lou Reed because of the movie we were all in, ‘Women in Revolt.'”
Reed — known for both his temper and his feuds with Warhol — died in 2013, and is not around to object to this re-telling. But by Reed’s own admission, he drew on lives of Woodlawn and others in what he called “the gay life” to make “Transformer” (1972), arguably his best album.
“What I’ve always thought is that I’m doing rock and roll in drag,” Reed, who endured conversion therapy as a youth and dated a transgender woman while a rock star, said after the song’s release. Of another song on “Transformer,” he said: “The gay life at the moment is not that great. I wanted to write a song which made it terrific, something that you’d enjoy. But I know if I do that, I’ll be accused of being a f—g; but that’s all right, it doesn’t matter. I like those people.”
Woodlawn did not object to being immortalized, and called “Walk on the Wild Side” “completely true.” But two Warhol films and getting name-checked in a very famous song didn’t lead to a life of leisure.
“I was very happy when I gradually became a Warhol superstar,” Woodlawn said in 2007. “I felt like Elizabeth Taylor! Little did I realize that not only would there be no money, but that your star would flicker for two seconds and that was it. But it was worth it, the drugs, the parties, it was fabulous. You live in a hovel, walk up five flights, scraping the rent. And then at night you go to Max’s Kansas City where Mick Jagger and Fellini and everyone’s there in the back room. And when you walked in that room, you were a STAR!”
Woodlawn’s career didn’t end after “Trash” and “Women in Revolt.” She relocated to Los Angeles, studied fashion design, continued to make films, and appeared in the Emmy-winning series “Transparent” last year. But for the rest of her life, she was a performer on the margins — doing cabaret shows, making appearances at Warhol-related events, and writing a memoir that is now out-of-print. She also dreamed of opening a dress shop called “Holly’s of Hollywood.”
Penny Arcade expressed dismay that, in the era of Caitlyn Jenner, the lives of trans women of less privilege — women out for decades — are overlooked.
“In this period where many, many trans women are extremely delicate and touchy and prissy, it would be very hard to understand somebody like Holly Woodlawn who was rough and ready and didn’t really care about pronouns and didn’t care if her beard was showing,” Arcade said, remembering that Woodlawn would sometimes salvage clothing from trash cans. “It’s a whole other world from that world of those originators.” She added: “A Caitlyn Jenner erases the visibility of Holly Woodlawn.”
It’s far from clear that Woodlawn — a woman not known for her politics — would care. Once asked whether she thought the armed forces discriminated against trans people, her reply was classic.
“Thank god they do,” she said. “Otherwise I’d be fighting in Vietnam.”